I have devoured Max Porter’s Lanny three times since it was published earlier this year. That should give you some idea of how much I adore it. Each time I’ve come back to it in a slightly different way. The first time, I read it; underlining passages, scribbling notes in the margins. The second time, I was lucky enough to hear Max perform it at the Southbank Centre alongside musicians and actors. The third time, just last week, I listened to the audiobook; all four narrators chattering in my head. Like his first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Lanny refuses to fit into the genre box. It’s a novel-play-poem hybrid and, because of this, it seems fitting that the book itself works so well as text, play, audio — always the same words, just morphing gently.
Like the book, Dead Papa Toothwort — one of the book’s main characters — also morphs. He is whatever society wants him to be. He’s a disembodied voice, rolling through the countryside, taking his form by animating discarded items, plants, the undergrowth. He regurgitates things he hears as he goes by. Fragments of living. As I read the book, I pictured him first as a Green Man, then an Ent (of Tolkien’s imagination), something like the BFG and Ted Hughes’s Iron Man. Just as you think you’ve captured his true form, he cackles and changes again. The locals believe he’s a character locked in folklore. Children draw pictures of him. Whatever he is, he is always listening.
Dead Papa Toothwort feasts on the small town’s gossip and is particularly drawn to the innocent song of a young boy, Lanny. Nicknamed Lanny Greentree, Lanny doesn’t quite have a fixed form, either. Unlike Dead Papa Toothwort, who doesn’t have a definite shape because he represents the evolving, rumbling, chaos of humanity, Lanny’s non-fixed form is more figurative. He is a child growing into himself — a sprout of a boy, full of innocence and magic, sunshine in his veins. To reflect this, we never hear from Lanny directly. His words are words recorded by other people. We see their impression of who he is, whilst Lanny slips off the page, still a developing photograph. “I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping, clicking, clicking, ever growing and changing,” says Lanny, bringing to mind Alice and her trip to Wonderland, shutting up like a telescope.
Lanny’s parents, Jolie and Robert, want to protect their son from the world whilst still letting him explore and stretch his wings. They worry, as all parents do, about what might pollute him. Will it be Robert’s absence, as he’s so often working late? Will it be the thriller Jolie is writing, with so many horrific things in its pages? Will it be Pete and his scary stories? Will it be the poisonous gossip of those living nearby?